Before I am too far removed from the episodes which prompted this article, I will interrupt our contemplation of the Cubs' series with a look back at Astros' base running this year. During the New York Mets series in Houston, Hunter Pence made a couple of gaffes on the base paths which were consequentlal in shutting down potential scoring threats by the Astros. In the game threads on both this web site and the Astrosdaily forum, Pence's base running drew sharp, frustrated comments. I don't mean to pick on Pence; at other times this year, base running mistakes by other Astros' players have been the subject of similar comments.
The topic is interesting for a couple of reasons. First, Ed Wade and Cecil Cooper said that an important objective this season is to improve the Astros' base running. Second, base running is a difficult skill to measure, and I am fascinated by Bill James' attempt to statistically capture individual base running performance. Third, I like to surprise those people who think that sabermetric analysts don't care about base running. I have seen that myth spouted by many talking heads; yet it is clear that Bill James, who is the dean of modern sabermetrics, has always shown an interest in the subject.
Bill James' base running index shows that Wade and Cooper were right when they said that the Astros' base running in 2007 left a lot to be desired. As this baseball analysts article indicates, the 2008 Bill James Handbook placed the 2007 Houston Astros as the worst base running team in the major leagues. As noted in the article, base running is difficult to measure because it involves many actions: stealing bases; avoiding double plays; runners going from first to third on a single, scoring from second on a single and from first on a double; moving up on a wild pitch, passed ball, balk, sac fly, or defensive indifference; runs scored as a percentage of times on base; and baserunning outs Bill James' base running index attempts to quantify bases gained or lost compared to the average.
I will use 2008 base running stats from billjames-online.net. Because this is a subscription web site, I will group data results in order to avoid disclosing all of the actual numerical results.
Best Astros Base Running Scores (+18 - +22)
2. Matsui (tie)
3. Bourn (tie)
Worst Astros Base Running Scores (worse than -10)
Worst: Carlos Lee
Next Worse: Hunter Pence
Blum, Loretta, Towles
Ausmus, Wigginton, Tejada, Quintero, Erstad
The sum for the players above nets out to +21. That means the Astros gained 21 more bases than the average team with their running. That is a substantial improvement. However, the vast majority of the positive base running was performed by just three base runners, Matsui, Bourn, and Berkman. Matsui was one of the best base runners in baseball last year with +41, and Matsui's base running skill is surely a major reason Wade acquired him. Bourn is just plain old fast. Shockingly, Berkman has been the team's most productive base runner. This is surprising because Berkman's base running scores for previous years have not been good. Just as Berkman has seemingly turned around his defense this year, from bad to great, he has done the same thing running the bases. Could Berkman, who often looks somewhat awkward on the base paths, become another Jeff Bagwell?
I started out the article mentioning Hunter Pence. And it is disappointing that Pence scores so poorly on the base running index. One of the biggest issues for him is a lack of success stealing bases. Because Pence is relatively speedy, you really hope to see a positive base running score. However, this lends proof to the adage that speed, alone, does not make a good base runner. Fortunately, players can improve their base running ability, and hopefully Pence will improve over time.
The double play ratio is an interesting component of James' base running index. The Astros ground into a lot of double plays. This happens when you have slow runners with good bat contact ability. The DP% is based on DP opportunities:
Best to Worst
Blum (3% best)
Matsui, Bourn (tie)
Ausmus, Wigginton, Lee (tie-10%)
Quintero (worst- 19%)
Are you surprised that Ausmus and Lee aren't the worst? Are you surprised that Blum is the best? (maybe small sample size for Geoff?)